Sacred Rhythm

Sacred Rhythm

Right after we had moved into our building on Belt Line Road, I was feeling pretty worn out. I don’t know if it was burnout or something more akin to post-partum depression. After working so hard to get the building completed, it felt like I had just given birth (my apologies to all you who have actually given birth and understand how overly dramatic that statement is). But now that that huge project was completed, I was experiencing a major low. I felt depleted, discouraged and in desperate need of some time away.  

Very graciously, God worked it out for me to go with Lee Jarrell to Colorado for a week. I went to the mountains with some pretty high hopes. I figured since God had made all the details fall into place so easily for this trip, then surely, God was going to meet with me in a really significant way. I took a journal filled with about six pages of questions and issues with which I was struggling. I felt certain God would give me the clarity I was craving. 

So I went expecting some life-changing answer to prayer but the only message I got from God was disappointing to say the least. The one thing I heard from God was a single word, “Wait.” And I thought, “That’s it, God? I traveled all this way. Dropped everything I was doing. I came focused, Bible in hand, journal full of stuff, ready to listen and this is what You tell me? You could’ve told me that back in Dallas.” Frankly, I didn’t understand.

It wasn’t until one afternoon when Lee and I were talking that what God was saying truly crystalized. Lee shared with me a verse from the prophet Isaiah. Here’s what it says…

For since the world began no one has seen or heard of such a God as ours, Who works for those who wait for Him!    Isaiah 64.4 (Living Bible)

Then Lee said, “There are two kinds of believers in the world. Those who believe God works for those who wait for Him and those who believe God works for those who work for Him.

His words were like an arrow to my heart. While I would certainly say I believed the first statement, I hated to admit that I lived as if the second one were true. God was indicting me on the fact that I didn’t do near enough waiting. Working hard and long is something that comes naturally, but waiting, not so much. I lived like someone who believed that God works for those who work for Him. It’s no wonder God had a single word message for me - “WAIT.”

Now think about how you actually live – not what you say you believe. Whether you’re talking about ministry or on the job, many of us plunge headlong into stuff and try to do it all by ourselves. Then when that doesn’t work, we ask for help.  Finally (and only after everything else we’ve tried fails) we pray. 

That order (and it was most definitely mine for years) is - Do it yourself, seek help if it doesn’t work, and when all else fails, pray - that is the complete opposite of the way Jesus lived.

What God was telling me was that I had lost the sacred rhythm of life - that there is a way to do life than doesn’t destroy our souls, leave us depleted, empty or burned out. There is a rhythm to how we serve Christ and how we grow as a believer for which there is no other substitute. 

God’s answer to our overcrowded lives is discipline. The words disciple and discipline are intertwined. Because once you’ve made the choice to say, "Yes, I want to follow Jesus and be His disciple," then, the next question is, "What disciplines will help me remain faithful to that choice?" If we want to be a disciple of Jesus, you have to live a disciplined life.

Now by discipline, I’m not talking about control. There are a lot of Christians who totally misunderstand and pervert the disciplines. They think of them as ways to gain control over their life. But that’s importing a very secular understanding of discipline onto the Bible and it is not what God means at all. In the spiritual world, the word discipline means “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” It was Henri Nouwen who said,  “[Discipline is] the effort to create some space in which God can act. Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up.”

Discipline creates space in my life where I am not occupied and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create space in which something can happen that you didn't plan on or count on. No Christian grows without this kind of discipline.

You and I can't make ourselves grow. The only thing we can do is put ourselves in a place where God can grow us and change us. That's what the spiritual disciplines are intended to do – to create the space where God can do His work. It’s God's job to grow us. It's our job to open ourselves up to that by giving Him the space He needs.

So God calls His disciples to a life of discipline. Three of which I want to talk to you about right now; to be alone with Him, connected in community and engaged in ministry. We find all three of these spiritual disciplines at work in the life of Jesus in a single passage from the Bible…

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.  When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.  He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.  Luke 6.12-19

This was Christ’s sacred rhythm. It’s the way He lived. Jesus first spent time alone with God. Then He gathered His disciples around Him in community. In the afternoon, He went out to preach and heal the sick.

Do you notice the order? From solitude (time alone with God) to community (vital relationships) to ministry (our experiences in God’s work for the sake of others). The order is solitude, community, then ministry.

You cannot reverse it and get the same results; ministry – community – solitude. That will never work. Which is precisely what I was attempting to do. I would engage in the work. When I failed, I sought help from others. If everything else went wrong, then and only then would I pray. I was living life backwards. It’s a sure recipe for a brown out in your soul and burn out in your work.

Another way of describing these three movements of our soul are communion, community and co-working or our desert, our group and our project. That is, we need time alone for prayer and reflection; we need a community to belong to and find our identity within; and we need meaningful work from God.  

This is a recipe for a robust spirituality. Let’s face it, none of us gets to live life divorced from work, parenting, bills, problems and just life in general. We seek God in solitude so that we can sustain His presence even in the midst of the demands of real life. This kind of spirituality doesn’t wilt in the face of overwhelming need. It sustained Jesus and it can and will sustain us, too.

Jesus needs you. He needs you to work with Him to bring God’s message of love and reconciliation to others. God claims you, communes with and works through you. Doing life God’s way is the only way to live! Begin with Him, find your place in the community and engage in the thing He has uniquely called and equipped you to do.

“Spiritual formation is the process of Christ being formed in us for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, and for the sake of others.”                                – Ruth Haley Barton

Winning at Losing

Compulsive overeaters have a unique challenge unlike other addictions. For example, an alcoholic is told, “You have a ferocious tiger - a wild beast that wants to destroy you. You’ve got to cage it up and never let it out again.”

The compulsive overeater is told, “You have a ferocious tiger - a wild beast that wants to destroy you. You’ve got to cage it up then take it out for a walk three times a day.” Unlike other addictions, complete abstinence from food is impossible. Disordered eating has to replaced by a normal and healthy relationship with food.

Let me confess, I have struggled with compulsive overeating my entire life. Apart from 13 years ago, when I got down to a healthy body weight for the first time in my life, I have been obese all of my life.

After achieving that goal, I managed to maintain a healthy relationship with food and my body for several years. I felt better than I had in decades. When my weight first started to inch back up, the compliments still kept rolling in. People had said I looked too skinny at 185 pounds. I accepted their verdict. I wasn’t worried about the weight gain.

But it was when I began training and running in marathons that my healthy routines were most interrupted. Up to that point, I had had a fairly predictable exercise regimen. I would go to the gym 5 to 6 times a week and do cardio for an hour. I consistently burnt off roughly the same amount of calories every day. But when I started running (especially longer distances like 9-15 miles), I would expend a great deal of energy and burn off even more calories. I had to consume more food on running days because I needed it. But before long, I was eating like everyday was running day.

In addition to interrupting a discipline of daily exercise that had served me well, I fell back into old patterns of self-neglect. Lots of travel and little rest, coupled with a lot of unhealthy eating made me balloon back up very near the heaviest weight I had ever been.

A couple of months ago, I began seriously considering weight loss surgery. I was feeling desperate – terribly desperate. I felt completely powerless. I lacked even the most basic motivation to address my eating and excess weight. Yet, all the excess weight was causing me problems. Everything is more difficult when you are heavy. International travel is uncomfortable. Energy to play with the grand-baby or to go to the park or even to take a walk is more limited. Health issues begin to multiply. Something had to be done. I was at the end of my rope.

Brenda was supportive and concerned. So I began the process in earnest. I was evaluated at a surgical center - completed a ton of paperwork, had a stress test on my heart, did all the blood workup. The next requirement was a nutritional class.

I was told, things would have to change after surgery. No more soft drinks after surgery (the carbonation can expand the stomach). Supplements would be required for the rest of my life since the surgery can compromise the body’s ability to absorb things like calcium and iron. Healthy eating was also a must – consuming only lean meats, cutting back on consumption of carbs and sugar as well as portion control. So I figured, “If I have to do this anyway, I might as well get started.” At least that way, I’d be used to it by the time surgery was completed. But that’s when the unexpected happened.

My body began responding wonderfully to this new eating plan. Frequent headaches disappeared. I was having more energy. Other body aches and pains went away AND the thing I least expected – weight started to drop off.

Facing the possibility of surgery and the reality of what I would have to do post-surgery was exactly the thing I needed to get me back on track. I have elected to not do the surgery. 

Normally, I would wait before even writing a blog like this (given my track record and abysmal past failures, it would be my way of saving face should I fail). But the truth is, whether I succeed or fail at losing weight doesn’t matter near as much as the decision to take better care of myself.

I am losing. But I’m not talking about weight. I am losing a lifestyle that has not been working for me. I am losing self-reliance and asking my wife for her help. I am losing dieting since what I’m engaged in is a new way of living and being in the world.

Do I have fears? You bet. I know I am always only one choice away from going back to the way things were. I totally relate to addicts because I am one.

But most of all I know, when I feel like a failure, that doesn’t impact the way God sees me. God has this amazing ability to see sin, not excuse it, but love anyway. He hangs out with the failed, the desperate and the most defeated.

If you beat yourself up all the time, saying to yourself things you would never say to another soul, then you have a grace deficiency. If you think you’re so bad off no one can love you, you have a grace deficiency. If you judge yourself based solely on your appearance, you have a grace deficiency. Thankfully, this misery-inducing disease has a cure! God’s extravagant grace is what heals it.

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over). He’s all I’ve got left.”  Lamentations 3.22-24 (The Message)

Are We Living Our Lives in Christ?

Are We Living Our Lives in Christ?

Love is not rude…                              1 Corinthians 13.5 (NCV)

Paul teaches us in this passage that love is not rude. If we forget what the New Testament is all about – our new life in Christ – we easily misinterpret this teaching to be some sort of new ethical injunction. Often Christians read this verse as saying, “Thou shalt not be rude.”  

So in sincere obedience we set about doing our best to avoid being rude. As long as we’re not being rude, we’ll tend to feel good about ourselves and invariably we’ll feel bad about ourselves when we are rude. We’ll also notice rude behavior in others and judge them accordingly just as we judge ourselves.

But we’ve missed the point entirely. Paul’s point is not that we should try hard to avoid rudeness. Instead Paul is insisting that we must live our lives in love. Simply put, if you are living out of the love of God, you won’t be rude. 

What I’m saying is 1 Corinthians 13 is not some sort of new to do list or the ten commandments of love. Instead Paul was describing what life is like in Christ - what it means to live your life in love. His purpose was not to get us to ACT different. His purpose was to help us BE different. 

In telling us love is not rude, what Paul was actually doing was giving us a red flag to help us notice when we are acting out of love and when we’re not. He’s telling us what evidence to look for in those who are participating in the life and love of Jesus. Because a person who is living out the love of God in their life will not be rude.

Similarly, when Paul told the Galatians that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, he was not trying to tell us to try to act more loving, joyful or peaceful. If we could simply will these things into existence, they wouldn’t be the fruit of the Spirit. Paul was encouraging us to live in the Spirit and not the flesh. The manifestation of our life of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

 

The Most Misused Verse in the Bible

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”                       Jeremiah 29.11

This verse doesn’t mean what most people think it means. The reason it takes on this “everything is great and only getting better” feel is because we read it thinking only of ourselves and our needs and what we want to hear. But we’re not thinking about who it was written to, what it was really about or what it meant to them.

So let me give you some backstory to this verse. Jeremiah was a prophet courageously speaking the message God had given him about impending judgment on the people of God. The people refused to listen. As a result the Babylonians entered Jerusalem, captured the inhabitants and burned the city to the ground. 

Then another prophet by the name of Hananiah came along. Hananiah made a bold promise, “God is going to restore Israel in two years. Everything will be better and back to normal in just two short years.”

It was a lie - an empty promise. But it sure sounded good. The truth is, God had no plans to make everything better in two years. Speaking through Jeremiah, God says to Hananiah, “You’ve made these people trust in a lie.”

It was against this backdrop of false promises about prosperity in the immediate future that the promise of Jeremiah 29.11 is made. The people carried away into captivity will be in exile for 70 years. Most all of them will die in Babylon. And even when release eventually does happen, many will remain in Babylon and never see home again.

So just before Jeremiah makes this promise, he tells the people what God desires for them to do…

This is what the LORD Almighty…says… “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.”                 Jeremiah 29.4-6

In other words, "You are going to be in Babylon for a very long time so you might as well get used to it and make the best of the situation.” He then added…

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.    Jeremiah 29.7

Pray for their enemy? Pray for the prosperity of Babylon? God knew that during their time away, how they would fair would be tied to how the Empire that surrounded them faired. If things went well for Babylon, His people, though removed from their land, would prosper, too. By the way, this is precisely why Daniel and Nehemiah both gained such favor in exile. They looked for ways to seek and promote the welfare of the city.

This is when we read Jeremiah 29.11, I know the plans I have for you to prosper you, we assume God is going to work out everything for me in the immediate future in ways that make sense to me. We will be going home soon. These problems will be a distant memory.

But we have to be careful to avoid assuming that every promise in the Bible is about me. This verse was not written to a me but to a we. It’s not a promise by God to prosper the individuals in the audience but to prosper the community over the course of history. God did have a plan for them as a people - one that would unfold over time. But that generation would not see the ultimate unfolding happen in their lifetime.

The Bible is an amazing book – a treasure trove of truth that has the power to change your life. But it’s first and foremost REAL. It always addresses life as it actually is not as we hoped it would be.

The truth of Jeremiah 29.11 is way more comforting and practical than pretending that God always promises everyone will get a quick turn around or an easy path through life. God is always at work in every circumstance and He will provide for us no matter what the difficulty. 

It’s like the Biblical definition of the word “hope.” Hope in the Bible is not a wish. It’s a certainty. But the certainty is not that my circumstances will be favorable or turn out as I expect. Hope is the confidence that God is intimately involved in our future no matter what happens. It's not a wish that things will turn out well. But the certainty that God does all things well.

 

In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25, Jesus said…

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Matthew 25.35-36

The implications of what Jesus said are profound. In essence, he says, “Wherever you find human need, you will find Me.” Because He said, “I was hungry you fed ME. I was sick and you visited ME, I was in Prison, you came to see ME.” Each condition Christ names is a condition of desperate need. So Jesus tells us, “I take up residence in the desperate.”

We forget this. We forget that the situations that seem most bereft of God are precisely the places where you will always find Him. Where the need is deepest, Jesus is already there.

Now think about this truth in light of how we do church. I imagine all of us have enjoyed great times of worship. In our songs, we cry out, “Jesus, come be with me!” And He does. He shows up. Scripture informs us that God inhabits the praise of His people (Psalm 22.3). It’s truly wonderful to be among God’s people and feel the presence of Christ in worship.

At other times, like when we’re in crisis, we fall to our knees and cry out, “Jesus, come be with me! I’m hurting. I’m desperate. I don’t know what to do.” Once again, we can count on Christ to show up. He meets us in our desperation. He is close to the brokenhearted and near to all who are touched by grief (Psalm 34.18). That’s His promise. We can count on His presence.

But if Matthew 25 means anything at all, it means I never have to wonder where Jesus is. I never have to be without His presence. If I want to find Jesus, I can always find Him in human need. He is always with the desperately poor, the hungry, the prisoner and the refugee. You can find Jesus in Soweto, in the favelas of Brazil and the refugee camps of Syria. And in all those places and many more, Jesus is crying out to His church, “Church, come be with Me!”

This is the call of the gospel. This is the cry of our Savior. He is in every orphan child. You can find Him in every hungry belly and every desperate situation. We want Him to be with us but He wants us so desperately to be with Him!

About 10 years ago, I came to the stunning realization that the way I had built my church had led to us being cut off from the living presence of Christ in the world’s most vulnerable people. This was unacceptable. The Church is called to be with Jesus where He is. We have decided to join Him in the margins and we are profoundly blessed because of it. God is still calling to His church, “Come be with Me.”